A Look At Papandreou's Motives

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When Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided to put the eurozone debt deal to a referendum, he stunned the continent. Why he did it is still unknown. To try and gain some insight into the prime minister's motives, Guy Raz talks with Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of Greek daily Kathimerini.


Now, in Greece itself, political observers are trying to untangle the political calculations of Prime Minister George Papandreou. His decision to call for a public referendum on whether to accept the terms of a European bailout may bring economic disaster to his country. The prime minister himself could lose his job as well. And if Greeks reject the bailout, it could mean default, and in turn, Greece abandoning the European Economic Union. Joining us now for more on why Papandreou made the call is Nick Malkoutzis. He's deputy editor of Greece's English-language daily newspaper Kathimerini. Nick, welcome to the program.

NICK MALKOUTZIS: Good to be with you.

RAZ: Papandreou stunned his European counterparts by calling for that referendum. Why did he do it?

MALKOUTZIS: Well, no one is really sure. He hasn't spoken publicly about it, so we can only make assumptions. And those would be that, firstly, he is under great pressure from people within his own party who've seen the ruling socialist PASOK suffer terrible losses in the opinion polls. Their ratings have been halved over the last two years as a result of the unpopular austerity program.

He's also under pressure from the public. We've had mounting protests against these austerity measures. So it's a very unstable domestic environment, and the pressure is on him to come up with some kind of solution, some kind of move that would get us out of this political inertia. Now, no one suspected that he would go for a referendum. Most people expected him to make a big - form a coalition government, perhaps.

RAZ: The last time Greece held a referendum was in 1974 to abolish the monarchy, so this is not a common thing in Greece. My understanding was that the Greek Parliament already approved the terms of the European bailout deal, right? So why redo that as a referendum?

MALKOUTZIS: Because his government is lacking in political legitimacy. Although parliament may have approved it, it was a simple majority. And we're at the stage where we really have political fragmentation in Greece. And he feels that he needs to do something to really move the debate on, to really, you know, reshuffle the deck and hopefully the cards will land in his favor. But there's no guarantee of that at the moment.

RAZ: Nick, if this referendum does go forward, what is your sense? Do you think the Greek public will back it?

MALKOUTZIS: It's very difficult to say at the moment because you don't know how people – what sort of mentality they're going to have when they go and vote. The danger is that this turns into a beauty contest that people go and vote according to whether they like George Papandreou or whether they like his government. In which case, I think the result will be a resounding no.

If the referendum goes ahead and we can have a mature debate, a proper campaign about the pros and cons of the euro or the pros and cons of the latest debt deal, then I would like to think that the majority would vote to stay in the euro, would vote to accept the deal and would vote to seeing Greece try and progress through the eurozone. But there are no guarantees at the moment. It's a very tense atmosphere here in Greece. And we really can't predict how people will go to vote.

RAZ: Clearly, Papandreou is being hammered by all corners of the political world. Are there people in Greece now saying, you know, this referendum is a good idea and we appreciate the prime minister presenting it to us?

MALKOUTZIS: I think there are people who, since the start of this crisis, have wanted the Greek people to have a say. After all, we should point out that even this new debt deal means that Greece will be under intense monitoring from its eurozone partners for the next decade, and that means giving up a lot of your national sovereignty. So perhaps, that's something that people should have a say on. But the problem is that you're now doing it right in the middle of an intense crisis, and we've already seen that the IMF has suggested that it won't release its part of the next loan installment, and as a result, the eurozone won't until we have the vote.

Well, if that happens, it could well be Greece will be tipped into bankruptcy before we even get into the vote. And that's how high the stakes are, and that's why a lot of people are saying this is a foolish move.

RAZ: Nick Malkoutzis is the deputy editor of Greece's English-language daily newspaper Kathimerini. Nick, thank you so much.

MALKOUTZIS: My pleasure.

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